NIH grant: Studying pathways that make hearts beat and memories form

December 14, 2020

Research & Innovation

Professor of Biology Linda Boland has been awarded a grant from the National Institutes of Health to support the creation of a tool to amplify electrical activity in cells to make them easier to measure. Boland specializes in ion channels, proteins in the body that allow cells to use low magnitude electrical signals to relay information to other cells. 

“As an analogy, the electrical current in each of our nerve cells is 1 billion times less than that used by your computer,” Boland said. “That’s a weak signal, and we need to amplify it to better measure and understand it.” 

She explained that ion channels help generate electricity that drives all human behavior, including thoughts, memories, and movement. They’re also important to the beating of the heart and secreting hormones.

“There are many genetic disorders of ion channel function,” she said. “The best-known ones include certain forms of epilepsy, cardiac arrhythmias, and some diseases of the kidney. Ion channels are also drug targets for many additional disorders of different organ systems. Our project will make it possible for researchers to study how genetic mutations in ion channels impact their function and how drugs act on ion channels.”

Studying ion channels is important for a variety of biomedical applications and targeted pharmaceutical treatments. Boland’s award is part of a larger NIH grant to the University of St. Thomas in Minnesota.

“They will be building the new tool with a team of undergraduates, and my research group, which includes UR undergraduate students, will inform the design, and assist with developing research questions and prototype experiments that will test it and show the research applications,” she said.

Once complete, the tool will be freely shared with other faculty and students, lowering the barrier to access and advancing scientific knowledge in the fields of molecular physiology and neuroscience. 

“This is a new concept that bridges the gap between science, undergraduate education, and business, and it’s exciting to be part of something that other labs will be able to use,” Boland said. “Our goal of making all the design, software, and experimental suggestions open source, allows us to share it with the scientific community so that different researchers can help advance our understanding of ion channel function in health and disease.”